Earlier this week, the Geneva II Conference that began today was thrown into disarray when UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon extended an invitation to Iran to attend the summit. The United States, among others, immediately rejected to Ban’s offer, which was subsequently rescinded when Iran said it would not accept the Geneva I communiqué as a precondition for being allowed to attend.
Although U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry had at times suggested that Iran could participate at Geneva II, the U.S. opposition to Ban’s invitation was fairly predictable. If for no other reason, Washington had to object given the main Syrian opposition group’s threat to boycott the summit if Iran was given a seat at the table. Since America’s main task was securing the opposition’s attendance at the summit, in return for Russia producing the al-Assad regime, Washington could not accept any moves that jeopardized the opposition’s participation.
That being said, in many ways America’s objection to Iran’s participation seems bizarre, and Tehran’s absence threatens to undermine whatever little can be achieved in Syria.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
The strong opposition to Iran attending Geneva II firstly seems odd given that other supporters of al-Assad’s regime will be attending. This includes China, which maintains an embassy in Damascus, has continued robust exports to Syria, and has given al-Assad diplomatic protection at the UN Security Council. Indeed, Beijing has lately indicated it wishes to get more involved in Syria, and its five point proposal on its face is probably not significantly different from what Iran would champion.
More importantly, Russia, which along with Iran has been al-Assad’s main external backer, has played an integral role in organizing the conference. Moscow’s support, of course, was necessary to convince al-Assad to send representatives to the conference. However, without both his main backers pressuring him to negotiate seriously at Geneva, al-Assad will have a greater ability to ultimately disavow himself of any proposals put on the table at the conference.
The strong U.S. opposition to Iran’s participation seems especially odd given that the two countries don’t have diametrically opposed interests in Syria. To be sure, Iran has staunchly supported al-Assad, while the U.S. has long called on him to go. Still, the biggest threats Iran and the U.S. face from the civil war in Syria are largely the same.
First and foremost, both countries fear al-Qaeda and radical Sunni jihadists gaining a foothold in Syria, from which they could carry out attacks on Iran and the United States’ interests elsewhere in the world. Additionally, both the U.S. and Iran fear that instability in Syria will further destabilize other areas of the Middle East, including Iraq and Lebanon.
Finally, both countries would like a quick end to hostilities in Syria. This is partly driven by their fear of the conflict destabilizing Syria’s neighbors. In addition, the U.S. has humanitarian concerns about the fighting. For Iran, the conflict in Syria has been an unmitigated disaster that has sapped its soft power in the region, and been costly in terms of blood and treasure. It has also weakened Hezbollah in Lebanon, and undermined Iran’s ties with Hamas. Given these realities, Iran would likely be willing to sacrifice al-Assad and his family as long as it could help broker a deal that protected its broader interests in Syria.
On the other hand, not inviting Iran to participate in Geneva II poses significant risks, and makes it far less likely that an acceptable and enforceable outcome in Syria can be found in the near future. Like it or not, Iran wields significant influence in Syria, and all indications suggest that it will continue to use that influence to protect its interests in Syria. Because it won’t have a chance to protect those interests diplomatically in Geneva, Iran will probably see its best option as trying to thwart any diplomatic settlement that can be reached. Iranian policymakers will reason that by undermining diplomacy they can eventually force the international community to accept Iran’s participation in negotiations over the future of Syria.
There are a number of historical precedents, including ones involving Iran, to bolster this argument. For example, following the first Gulf War — with the Cold War quickly winding down — the U.S. organized an international conference in Madrid to jump start Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and establish a new order in the Middle East. The Soviet Union nominally co-sponsored the Madrid Conference, as it would come to be known, and more than forty different countries and international organizations were invited to attend. Every nation in the region was among the invitees, with exception of Iraq — which had just been defeated in the war — and Iran.
The U.S. decision to not invite Iran seemed puzzling at the time, and certainly was regrettable in hindsight. After all, Iran had provided the cooperation the U.S. asked for in taking down Saddam, and Iran’s new President, Hashemi Rafsanjani, had softened Iran’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
Although U.S. officials at the time would later admit that U.S. animosity toward Iran contributed to this decision, some also admitted that they saw Iran as irrelevant to the Israel-Arab peace talks and therefore not worthy of an invite. “Iran simply had nothing to contribute. It had no leverage over the Arabs, so how could it help the peace process?” Brent Scowcroft, national security adviser at the time, would say over a decade later.
Out of the Madrid Conference came a new U.S.-led Middle East order that specifically excluded Iraq and Iran (who, of course, were hardened enemies). This would later be codified as U.S. policy under the Clinton administration as the so-called “Dual Containment” policy. Iran was thus given no stake in the established regional order, and not surprisingly has opposed and sought to undermine that order ever since. And, in direct contrast to its predecessor, the Clinton administration repeatedly cited Iranian influence as significantly undermining the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The George W. Bush administration would complain of Iran’s negative influence on a whole host of issues in the Middle East, most notably Iraq.
It didn’t necessarily have to be that way. In fact, following the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Iran sent a secret grand bargain proposal to Washington. Although often ignored in subsequent accounts, an important part of that proposal was Iran pledging to help the United States create a stable post-Saddam Iraq. Of course, Iran had every interest in a stable Iraq, and its strategic objectives in the country were not significantly different from the United States’ own goals (although on some issues, like democracy, they shared interests for different reasons). As is well known, the George W. Bush administration opted not to respond to this Iranian proposal. Subsequently, Iran played a significant role in trying to undermine U.S. operations in Iraq. In the end, as most now concede, Iran won the Iraq War.
In sum, while U.S. opposition to Iran’s participation in Geneva II is in some ways understandable, it also may prove to be extremely short sighted and something Washington comes to regret.